If all you know about Big Spring senior Jeremiah Cooley is that he’s a gifted athlete, you’re missing the best parts of his story.
If all you know about his brother, Michael Felton, is that he’s a junior high coach for the Steers, you’ll soon learn why.
Cooley, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, has been through a lot to get where he is today. And perhaps no one is more responsible for shaping him into the young man he’s become than Felton, who — at 25 years old; he’ll turn 26 next month — is legal guardian to Cooley and his other five siblings.
That arrangement, born about a year ago of circumstances beyond either’s control, has at times been a turbulent one. But the two have found a groove off the field that could help Cooley achieve his lofty goals on it.
But the storm that wrecked his hometown of New Orleans sent his extended family scattering, with his immediate unit settling in Big Spring. The change took some getting used to.
“When we moved here, at first I didn’t like it. I just had a weird feeling being here,” Cooley said. “But as the years went on, I was like, ‘I can really do something here’ because it’s pretty good community. Everyone’s supportive, so it’s a really good atmosphere for sports and stuff. That’s what I like about it.”
That’s one of many things that has changed for Cooley since the move. And some of the biggest have come more recently.
Living with his mom and five siblings — Chavanda (19), Isaiah (17), Jha’niah (14), Kayen (13) and Elijah (11) — for most of that stretch, Cooley’s home situation experienced some major upheaval about a year ago.
“A lot of things in the past weighed down my mom, and I could tell she was going through something because she wasn’t getting onto (the kids) about their grades, and the house would be filthy and she wouldn’t do anything,” Felton said. “That’s not the way she raised us. That’s not the way she raised me, and I could tell.
“So last year, my mom just wasn’t doing her best mentally and she kind of slipped up and I had to take the kids. I had to get us and take care of everything.”
This, too, required some adjustment.
“Me and him, we used to clash, especially when I graduated from college and came back home. You wouldn’t have even known we were brothers because we’d be out in public and wouldn’t speak to each other,” Felton said. “And then we’d get home and I’d get on him and he’d yell at me and try to fight me and stuff.
“Finally, we just had a breaking point. He was like, ‘You’re always on me.’ And I was like, ‘I know, man, but we don’t have a father figure. I’m just doing what he did to me. That’s the best thing I can do, and it’s better than not telling you anything and letting you think everything you do is perfect.’
“That was two years ago, but these last couple of months, I’ve seen a huge change. He’ll come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you want me to do this?’ And sometimes he doesn’t even ask. He’ll just get up and start cleaning.”
That shift didn’t happen by accident.
“It’s been conscious,” Cooley said. “I realized how I was acting, and I was like, ‘Wait, I’m not ever going to accomplish anything if I keep doing this,’ so I had to change, and I’ve been really working on that.
“I’ve seen the improvement and everybody else has seen the improvement as well.”
Little has come easy in Felton’s life.
Displaced with his family by Katrina, he had to finish eighth grade and experience all of high school in a new town. And after an athletic career at Big Spring that saw him compete in football, baseball and powerlifting, he put himself through college at Wayland Baptist.
“I played college baseball at Wayland Baptist. After my first year, I got a little bit of a scholarship,” Felton said. “I looked at it and did the numbers sometime after I graduated and anywhere from around 10 to 30 percent of my schooling was paid for, and my books were covered every year.
“Other than that, it was just paying what I can by working work-study on campus or either my mom or I taking out loans.”
But it was after his schooling and upon returning to Big Spring that the biggest challenges arose.
Witnessing his mother’s struggles, he had no choice but to become the man of the house.
“I never understood, but when I was 13, my stepdad, who is their dad, was like, ‘Mike, you’re going to have to hold it down,'” Felton said. “I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t understand what he meant, but he was like, ‘You’re going to have to hold down the fort.’ And then five years ago, he passes away, and I’m like, ‘My goodness.’
“But it’s been tough taking care of them because I’m learning. I’m not perfect and I really don’t know what I’m doing. But I do know I am trying, and I think they see that. But it’s fun. It’s an experience. I just hope I’m doing right by them.”
The rest of the story
Through all the adversity in Cooley’s life, athletics have been a constant. And it became clear pretty quickly that the now 6-foot-4, 210-pound 17-year-old had a future in that arena.
“I know he’s not one of those ESPN top-300 guys or anything like that, but just me looking at him like a brother, I could first tell he was going to be a star at like 12,” Felton said.
A standout in football, basketball, baseball and track, Cooley’s goal is turn his physical gifts and athletic talent into a college scholarship. And entering his final year of high school, momentum seems to be heading in that direction.
As of July, he was still waiting on college offers, but he’s received interest from several prominent Division I programs in Texas and has been actively recruited by the Angelo State and Texas-Permian Basin football staffs.
Felton said he’s also getting basketball interest from St. Joseph’s and South Florida.
The next step for Cooley is to have a big senior season on the football field this fall and then decide which sport he wants to concentrate on at the next level.
“That’s going to be a hard decision,” Cooley said. “That’s going to be one of the biggest decisions of my life. I’m leaning like a tiny bit towards basketball, but nothing’s really set in stone right now.”
Regardless of the direction Cooley decides to go, he’s got a fan in his Felton, who couldn’t be prouder of the man and athlete his brother has become.
“(ln the past), he’d crack under pressure. Not like go out and do something stupid, but just let the pressure get to him,” Felton said. “I’ve seen so much of a change in him I’m just excited. I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but I’m excited to see the next time he gets hit with pressure and adversity because I want to see how he handles it.
“Just based on how he’s been acting the last couple of months, I can tell it’s not a facade or a front he’s trying to put on. I think he really is growing up.”
Cooley insists that’s the case. In fact, that’s the thing he most wants others to know about him.
“I just want people to know that I’m not the same person I was a couple of years ago,” he said. “A couple of years ago, I was in a slump. I wasn’t doing the right stuff, I was kind of a hot head and didn’t keep my emotions in check. Honestly, I was just a jerk to people.
“But that’s not me anymore. I’m going to do the right thing. I’m not going to hurt anybody. I’m going to do whatever it takes for my team to win, even if that means sitting on the sidelines.”
Big Spring football coach Mitch McLemore doesn’t envision Cooley spending much time on the bench. He’s too big an asset on the field.
But like Felton, McLeore is most proud of Cooley’s maturity and development away from the game.
“He is one of those young men that catches your eye instantly as an athletic-type kid, but what’s even better is he has a heart of gold and he’s empathetic toward anybody that’s in distress,” McLemore said. “Sometimes that comes out in a way that people don’t understand, but when you talk to his brother, you get a sense of the depth of the trials and tribulations he’s been through.
“And what I’ve seen in the last year is his leadership grow. He was elected one of the character leaders, so in one year’s time, he’s transformed from not being too sure of another new staff and all the stuff we’ve been through to taking care of his siblings and helping Coach Felton around the house. He’s been a huge asset for us.”